Old Vines, Fine Wines, My Vines

single bunch of grapes on vine
A single bunch this year.
I live on a lovely street in West Los Angeles, where the 50+
year-old Chinese Elm trees provide a beautiful canopy that adds to the charm of
our neighborhood.  Sadly, these trees are
reaching the end of their life, and many of them are simply falling down, as their
aging roots can no longer support their hefty weight. Fortunately, my local government is replacing
them with young, strong trees that should grow and produce lovely shade for the
next 50 years.
This circle of life, if you will, is similar to that of a
vineyard. Grape vines also reach old age at around 50 years (up to 100 years in
rare cases), by which time they generally stop producing enough fruit to be
commercially viable. Viticulturists often choose to pull out the old vines and
replant young, strong ones.
In the wine industry, the term “old vines” is used to market
wines to a discerning audience, and generally refers to wines produced from
vines aged 20 to 50 years. For a variety of reasons, these vines may not be at
their peak in terms of production quantity,
but their production quality is such
that they can produce some of the finest and priciest wines in the world.
The term “old vine” is subjective, says Los Olivos,
Calif.-based Larry Schaffer, owner and winemaker of award-winning Tercero Wines
(www.tercerowines.com).  He says that in California and elsewhere in
the world, old vines are those that are close to 100 years old. But in Santa Barbara
County [where Tercero is based] the oldest are only 50 years old, and most are
20-30 years old, or younger. “In general, the older the vine, the less fruit it
produces, and the conventional wisdom is that these make more concentrated and
complex wines. I’m not sure if that is the case or not,” Schaffer admits.
Not everyone concurs that older vines make better wines.
There are those who believe a vineyard’s best wines are produced in the first
or second year of production when, similar to old vines, yields are still quite
About three to six years after planting a vineyard will
begin producing its highest yields and reach a stabilization period. As long as
pests, disease, water (too little or too much), minerals, and other
contributing factors are managed properly, the vineyard can be maintained for
quite a long time. It’s rare, however,
to have any crop ever untouched by pests or other maladies in its lifespan. Vineyard
management is a high-stakes business.
Old vine wines from Trader Joe's
Trader Joe’s “Old Vine” Offerings
I wasn’t thinking about this a few years ago when I
purchased two grape vines from a winery in Paso Robles, Calif. I just wanted to
grow grapes and live my dream of being a vintner, albeit on a teeny tiny scale.
So I planted the vines in my back yard, and thus far, over three years, the
vines have produced as follows: Year 1, a few bunches on each vine; Year 2, zero
bunches on each vine (sad, so I pruned back the vines thinking this would help);
Year 3 (now), one bunch is going strong (see photo at top). This year’s grapes have just
begun to ripen, turning purple (known as véraison
viticulture-speak), and I should be able to squeeze out one half glass of wine
(varietal unknown) this fall!
In the
meantime, I’ve been pondering the “Old Vine” designation. Schaffer advises to
a bunch of old vine wines and compare them with same vintage/same vineyard/newer
vines to make your own determination. That’s my plan and I’m going to stick to
A quick perusal at Trader Joe’s turned up a couple old vine
wines: Old Moon Old Vine Zinfandel 2011
and Ravens Wood Old Vine Zinfandel
Vintners Blend 2010
, at just $5.99 and $7.99, respectively. I’ll be tasting
a few dozen French and Spanish wines this weekend at a Wine House (www.winehouse.com) tasting, and hope to sample
some old vines there.
Until next time, Cheers!